Moleskine notebooks, which trace their roots to the paper pads artists and writers turned to for decades, saw their sales in Japan in 2008 hit ¥500 million, or 10 times what they took in when Tokyo-based Qahwa Ltd. began distributing the brand here in 2005.
Qahwa founder Carlos Granon, 38, attributes Moleskine’s success to its storied history.
“Stationery is usually considered a commodity, but Moleskine is a cultural heritage,” he said. “Picasso, Hemingway and Van Gogh used the notebook. I think Japanese people like this kind of grand history.”
Despite the deepening recession, sales of Moleskine notebooks, the least expensive of which retails for ¥1,890, have never declined, said Granon, a French national.
Black or red with a hard oilcloth cover and elastic closure, the original notebooks — nameless then — were manufactured by a small bookbinder in Tours, France, from the 1880s to the 1980s.
They were resurrected by a small publisher in Milan in 1997, and the Moleskine brand was born.
Granon said he discovered Moleskine in the early 2000s in a small stationery shop in Paris, and found the concept of the notebook very interesting.
When Qahwa began marketing Moleskine in Japan in 2005, Granon said he struggled with Japanese ways of doing business.
That year, the manufacturer of Moleskine offered Qahwa exclusive rights to distribute the notebooks through bookstores in Japan. It was the only avenue available to Granon because there was already a Japanese distributor of the notebooks at the time.
Selling stationery through bookstores is tough, Granon said, especially for a small and unknown company. Bookstores normally get their stationery from major distributors, including Tohan Corp. and Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc., so it isn’t surprising that many turned him down when he came knocking on their door.
“So we contacted (the distributors), but they refused to work with us because we were a small company,” he said.
Stymied by traditional ways of doing business, Qahwa had no choice but to change tactics. Granon said his Japanese business partner, Go Urano, suggested the company instead approach relatively new retailers, including Aoyama Book Center and Tsutaya Co.
More flexible and collaborative, they were happy to take the notebooks on consignment to avoid the risk of making a loss, Granon said.
“Having one foreigner and one Japanese and finding a way to collaborate with each other is the secret to success in Japan,” said Granon.
The Frenchman deals with the notebook manufacturer and is in charge of the firm’s finances, while Urano, 35, a former professional volleyball player in the Netherlands, handles sales and marketing.
“It’s crucial to have a local person to gain the trust (of customers),” he said.
At the same time, Granon considers being French an advantage because it makes communicating with the Moleskine manufacturer easier thanks to a shared culture and business style.
After Moleskine’s initial success, in 2007 Qahwa once again approached the big book distributors, which opened the door to major bookstore chains.
Today, Qahwa manages the entire distribution network of Moleskine notebooks in Japan.
The expertise they gained opened up another business opportunity for the firm — marketing the Michelin Guide.
“We were very flattered when they contacted us especially because we were only six people at that time,” Granon said.
Granon also has businesses marketing Moleskine notebooks in South Korea and Hong Kong. In fact, his first stationery distribution firm was set up in Seoul, not Tokyo, in 2003.
Moleskine was a relatively unknown brand at that time, he said.
“(The business) went very well,” he said. “We were very lucky because Moleskine started booming worldwide. It was the right timing.”
Last year, Granon began selling the notebooks in Shanghai with his business partner from Hong Kong, who also markets Moleskine in Taiwan and Singapore.
“I’m a resident in Japan, but I always have an Asian perspective,” said Granon, who studied Mandarin for a year in Taiwan after receiving his finance degree in France.
Before establishing Qahwa, he worked for two years as a division head at French supermarket chain Carrefour in Shanghai and set up subsidiaries of toy camera manufacturer Lomography in Japan and Hong Kong.
After finding success with Lomography, Granon said he was ready to start his own business in his 30s.
When asked the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur, Granon said, “Get started, appreciate young people’s fresh ideas, and be open-minded.”